QR-codes to help tourists

Travel in unknown city often begins with ‘smart’ ‘small squares’
By Yury Chernyakevich

An experienced journalist can probably tell you how they acquired their first Dictaphone: likely to have housed an old-fashioned mini-cassette which needed to be flipped over at the end of the recording and rewound for listening. These days, everyone, including me, uses compact ‘digital’ devices, being so much easier and able to store large volumes of information. 

In whichever sphere you work, it’s likely that modern technologies have changed your daily life. Belarus is following world trends, shifting towards digital television broadcasting and the screening of 3D films at cinemas. The Terra Nova International Festival of Digital Art, which has been hosted by Minsk several times, is truly an established part of the capital’s cultural life.

With each year that passes, the application of technological innovations expands. Among the latest are QR-codes, which look like strange black-and-white geometric patterned squares. Found on goods, Internet pages, billboards and advertising clips, as well as on business cards, T-shirts and souvenir cups, they point the way towards sharing extra information. Standing for ‘quick response’, QR-codes were developed in Japan for easy scanning by mobile phone cameras. Software applications can then be used to ‘decipher’ information on the attraction, campaign or product. Like familiar bar-codes on supermarket goods, a host of information can be connected to a digital sequence: far beyond simple price. There’s no doubt that such codes have become universally popular, having wide application and proving so convenient.

On scanning a QR-code with your mobile phone, you are automatically re-directed to a special site, where you can receive more detailed information on the product or service: for food products, this could be place of manufacture, price or ingredients.

It’s really that simple! No doubt, this is the secret of success and explains why such codes are already ubiquitous in trade, advertising and tourism.

The innovation has particular relevance to Belarus’ emerging tourism, helping guests navigate around unknown cities, discovering which sites they shouldn’t miss: museums, galleries and churches. Of course, such information can also be found in guide books but the advantage of QR-codes is their speed and ease. Tourists can scan the special ‘squares’ on city maps placed at strategic points, directing them towards accommodation and cafйs, as well as points of interest. The link sends guests to an Internet portal, detailing the history of Minsk, Brest or Nesvizh: all in whichever language is desired.

Minsk began embracing the trend last summer, placing the codes on two dozen major billboards in the centre of the city; this year, a similar number are due to be unveiled. Scanning them with your mobile phone, you are re-directed to a website containing small articles on St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral, the Town Hall, the National Library and many other landmarks. Nesvizh — an ancient town in the Minsk Region — is truly pioneering the innovation, having placed QR-codes at all significant historical sites. Translators and guides are no longer required, as long as you own a modern mobile phone. There’s even an audio guide, available in Belarusian, Russia, Polish and English.

I investigated QR-codes on my last trip to Nesvizh, accompanied by friends. At the entrance to the Radziwill residence, we saw a large QR-code placed clearly and, on scanning, were re-directed to the website of the Historical and Cultural Museum-Reserve, where we found a host of information on the town’s sights. The Internet page also provided audio guides for Nesvizh’s seven major sites, including Corpus Christi Catholic Church, the Slutsk Gates and the Craftsman’s House. Each recording is concise and clear, detailing the salient information within five minutes, giving a good general overview.

One of the heads of the Nesvizh National Historical and Cultural Museum-Reserve, Alexander Khramoi, helped create the system, as he explained at the recent Electronic Belarus scientific and practical seminar. Mr. Khramoi, the Deputy Director of the National History Museum of Belarus, admits that Minsk is yet to achieve the same tourist use of QR-technology as Nesvizh, obliging foreign guests to use alternative websites in seeking information on hotels, restaurants and museums. He advises that information be translated as text, accompanied by photos and mini-maps, as well as for audio guides, with QR-codes displayed prominently in a great many locations.

He believes that we can learn from our neighbours in Warsaw, who installed 16 sculptures of mermaids bearing QR-codes in the city centre last year, linking to downloadable pages in 14 languages, featuring maps and information on sights.

Minsk’s Information and Tourist Centre has no plans for anything similar to the mermaid sculptures but plans to unveil several dozen more billboards with QR-codes. Late 2012 also saw the launch of a tourist bus along the major avenues of Nezavisimosti and Pobediteley, giving a tour of Minsk’s sights, with the help of audio guides.

There’s no doubt that digital technologies are the way forward for Belarusian tourism: in Minsk and other cities. The example of Nesvizh speaks for itself. We quickly become used to innovations — like the digital Dictaphone, without which we can hardly imagine journalism today, however popular tape technology once was.
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